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11th July 2013

Mental health awareness – a lesson from golf

Maybe, like me, you stayed up late to watch Justin Rose’s victory in the US Open golf championship last month, the first Englishman to win the title for over 40 years. Even if you’re not a golf fan, the story of an earlier US Open champion provides some valuable lessons in the field of mental health awareness. Johnny McDermott was the first American born golfer to win the title, over 100 years ago. His story is inspiring, but with a very sad ending. He spent most of his life in a mental institution after suffering a breakdown that followed a number of life events. Johnny McDermott started his golf career as a caddy, and with many hours of practice became one of the world’s best players of his day. So what were the life events that sparked off his mental ill-health? At one event he made some comments that were regarded as an insult to some British players and he was attacked by newspaper reporters for his rudeness. He lost money on the stock market, and on his transatlantic return from the British Open his ship collided with another and he had to be rescued after spending a night on a lifeboat. Later his parents had him committed into a mental institution in Philadelphia. So what are the lessons we can draw from this?

  • People need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Maybe some of Johnny McDermott’s ill-considered remarks were symptoms of thought disorder.
  • In the world of sport, people can be intolerant of mental ill-health. We’ve read of more recent stories where footballers with depression have been dismissed with unhelpful comments like ‘what has he got to be depressed about?’ Encouragingly, another professional golfer who suffered mental ill-health, Bert Yancey, has an annual golf tournament held in his memory that raises money for mental health programmes in the U.S.
  • Many signs and symptoms of severe mental illness can occur in late adolescence, these may be the typical behaviours of a teenage boy, but equally they may be early signs of something more severe. Johnny McDermott was 20 when he won the US Open. Only when it was too late did people realise he was ill.
  • Major mental health problems are stress-related, so traumatic life events for someone who is vulnerable can cause relapse.

As for the end of the story, McDermott went to watch the US Open at Merion in 1971, the same course where Justin Rose won last month. Then aged 80, he was oddly dressed, and shuffling around the course. He was asked to leave, but thankfully tournament officials realised who he was and they gave him pride of place behind the 18th green where players came and shook his hand as they finished their rounds. Six weeks later he died in his sleep.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

David Beckingham

Mental Health Specialist

David Beckingham is a self-employed independent trainer, and is also an honorary lecturer with the University of Cumbria. His professional background is as a social worker and he has worked in care homes for older people in Cumbria. David’s main area of expertise is in mental health. Prior to becoming self-employed he was a Staff Development and Training Officer with Cumbria County Council, both commissioning and delivering training to mental health workers and others in statutory and independent sector organisations. Read more

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